On this, Twelfth Night, Paul O'Doherty begins his final collection of reviews of the wine books published in 2013 with a paean of praise for an MW self-publisher. As last year, we will very soon make all these reviews free for all; wine authors and book publishers deserve all the support we can give (says an entirely impartial observer...).
Claret & Cabs
Following on from three of the best wine books to hit the shelves in the last few years – What Price Bordeaux?, Wine Myths and Reality and In Search of Pinot Noir – former molecular biologist Benjamin Lewin (also a Master of Wine), has come up with another excellent, self-published book that outshines all the others in the past year. Taking Cabernet Sauvignon as his big subject, Lewin from the first chapters is asking, probing and undermining what you might already know about this powerful son of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Where does it grow best? Are Napa Valley producers following the style in Bordeaux, or is it the other way around? Is labelling Cabernet Sauvignon 'herbaceous' a term of abuse? Does it have to be blended with its traditional partners from Bordeaux? In this age of greater ripeness is it necessary to blend at all? Does using clones have a general homogenising effect? How many egg whites does it take to fine a wine? What should we expect to taste in a modern Cabernet Sauvignon? Is Bordeaux abandoning its role as the guardian of Cabernet Sauvignon typicity? Is Cabernet Sauvignon always planted in the best terroir? These are just some of the questions that Lewin answers, bringing his considerable scientific and vinous knowledge to bear on a book you never want to end. The science bits might need a little bit more attention but not so much that you'd want to throw your hat at the book.
Topics covered include the struggle to reach ripeness on Bordeaux's left bank; how the drainage problem suggests that Cabernet Sauvignon may not in fact be naturally suited to Bordeaux; the importance of blending; the dramatic change in vintages in Bordeaux from 1982; the decline in pyrazine levels; the predilection at the great châteaux for a higher proportion of Merlot in their second wines; whether the onset of global warming in Bordeaux will see the emergence of newer blends (hands up who would like a Cabernet Sauvignon-Carménère blend in their first growth?); the authenticity of Rutherford Dust; the AxR1 (Aramon Rupestris Ganzin No 1) California rootstock debacle; is Cabernet Sauvignon a terroir grape? (not as stupid a question as you'd think); the 'Judgment of Paris'; the movement towards over-ripe, higher alcohol, over-oaked more powerful examples of Cabernet Sauvignon with less elegance; Mediterranean blends; massal selection of vines; the dangers of over-production in terms of clonal selection; 'suitcase clones' – those smuggled into the United States; the superficial parallels between Bordeaux and Bolgheri; winemaking restraint in South Africa and South America; and the history of cult and icon wines among many others.
There are also some really good maps, graphs and photographs differentiating soil types, showing the fog rolling in over Napa, changes in temperatures over the years and the rise and fall in, say, the popularity of grape varieties or the significant changes in 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine (IBMP) levels. To finish, the last 200-odd pages are made up of producer profiles and tasting notes. If you're looking for negatives you'll certainly find them in passages that are a little over-written or repetitive when a particular point has already been clearly made. That said, this is, once again, another remarkable piece of research from Lewin that rattles along at a great pace and is the perfect companion as a northern hemisphere fireside read on these damp wet and cold days as we trundle towards spring.
The Wine Explorer: Stories and Discoveries
The University of Buckingham Press
Mitchell, the man behind The Wine Explorer company, starts his vinous journey with an exploration behind the label giving his take on concentration, intensity, balance, complexity and length before arriving in Australia, moving west to east from Margaret River to the Yarra Valley recalling a number of mildly amusing stories of licking dogs, a man up in court for drink-driving, the search for a less-expensive Shiraz to give Penfolds Grange a run for its money and how he weaned his wife-to-be onto wine by familiarising her with cheap Beaujolais along the way. His powers of persuasion were successful as she agreed to marry him although she did add a proviso: 'as long as you promise never to give me cheap Beaujolais again'.
From Australia, Mitchell arrives in New Zealand to discover the idyllic Rippon vineyard and winery on the shores of Lake Wanaka in Central Otago ('probably the most beautiful vineyard site in the world'); recommends Staete Landt Sauvignon Blanc to rival Cloudy Bay; tells what he discovered when he met the Basil Fawlty of the New Zealand wine world; and recalls an amusing tasting on his honeymoon where his wife again delivered an appropriate one-liner on what it must feel like to be a tasting widow.
And on he goes through South Africa, Argentina and France, often exploring in broken-down jalopies with poor steering and no air-conditioning, arriving at his destinations, as he says, as though he's 'come from the gym'. Between the various signposted chapters to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the like, Mitchell lapses into memoir recalling, for instance, a time back in 1983 when he was 19, picking grapes for Château d'Angludet in Margaux. He captures some of the hard work and one or two of the characters he encountered, but you just wish he delved further into the story and, instead of using adjectives to describe how great the experience was, actually revealed more about what happened. There are plenty of old jokes as well, the sort that viewers of the 1970s The Comedians will remember. They are indeed funny, but not all of them necessarily relate to wine. It is also quite remarkable how many of the wines Mitchell comes across in his travels have been 'discovered' by airlines. For instance: 'I thought the Pinot Noir was outstanding and, having bought the wine, I was delighted to see this wine in the first-class cabin on Air New Zealand's international flights'. Or, 'the Chardonnay I discovered is so good that it is served in the first-class cabin of Qantas Airlines'. That said, Mitchell seems to know his stuff and shares his knowledge of what grapes grow where and how, the importance of yields and balance in making great wine, tips on choosing wine, what goes best with what, and why one shouldn't order the house wine.
You may disagree with the tagline to his book that suggests that 'Graham (Mitchell) is to wine what Michael Palin is to travel… a sort of Indiana Jones with a corkscrew' - based on much of this evidence there's little here to protect the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail falling into the hands of the Nazis – but there is an endearing quality to Mitchell's writing. Okay, so it's a little over-the-top in places and huffs more than it delivers, but you do want to read on and hear more about his travels and how he got on in further adventures. It just needed to be teased out a little.
The cover of this book (which was published earlier in 2013) has frequently reminded me of Donna Tartt's latest novel The Goldfinch published (after Wise's). The typography is remarkably similar and the grapevine in the middle of Wise's jacket could for a split second be Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch that is centred and partially hidden on Tartt's. While Tartt's book is about obsession, memory, loss and death, Wise focuses on a number of celebrities, alive and dead, including Francis Ford Coppola (owner of Inglenook in Rutherford, California), Raymond Burr (Raymond Burr Vineyards in Healdsburg, Sonoma), Mario Andretti (Andretti Winery in Napa), Jarno Trulli (Podere Castorani in Abruzzo) and Antonio Banderas (Anta Banderas in Burgos) and their links to various vineyards, 10 of which are in California, with one each in Canada and Spain, and three in Italy. Wise, who has written previously on Kurt Cobain and The Beach Boys, has collaborated on this project with Linda Sunshine - 'my editor, confidant and mentor' - who Wise refers to generously as his 'co-author' . Most of the subjects in the book have a background in film or motor racing. Apart from those already mentioned, Wise and Sunshine feature, among others, Robert Karmen (screenwriter on The Taken and The Transporter franchises) at Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma; Lilian Disney (who was married to Walt) at Silverado Vineyards in Napa; Fess Parker (who remembers Daniel Boone from the television series?) at Fess Parker Winery in Santa Barbara; Dan Aykroyd (The Bluse Brothers and Ghostbusters) at Diamond Estates on the Niagara Peninsula; and Natalie Oliveros (porn star in Debbie Does Dallas… Again (in which incidentally she won an Adult Video News award for 'Best Group Sex Scene') at Savanna Samson Wines in Montalcino which prompts one of the best lines in the book: 'can a porn star make a decent red wine?' Not that this is a salacious contribution to this end-of-year review, but I feel moved to mention the photograph of the delectable Ms Oliveros lying in the buff on a bed of an uncrushed grapes.
Each chapter includes lots of biographical detail which, bearing in mind the number of connections to the small and big screen, will be of value to film buffs or those who remember Davy Crockett, Ironside or, dare I say it, The Masseuse. The narrative also looks how the various celebrities got involved in the wine business, how they bought their vineyards/wineries and why, the history of the vineyard since, along with a look at what the vineyard/winery produces. There are also tasting notes to accompany each chapter. Glossy, well-written and attractively packaged with numerous photographs, this book has its own charm and should be of interest to those just as curious about the celebrities as what's in the bottle.
Pairing Food & Wine for Dummies
John Wiley & Sons
While these types of all-in-ones from Wiley are published under the eponymous 'for dummies' label, often, as in this case, one would wish they'd put more thought into the production values and paper and took away the moniker that cheapens what is a really decent book. Written by Szabo, a Canadian Master Sommelier, it covers six basic sections such as the importance of one's nose in appreciating the marriage of food and wine, developing strategies for pairing food and wine (a frequent theme in these reviews), understanding the different styles of wine, uncovering the best wine bets with world cuisine and cheese, pairing for friends and professionals, and suggestions on food-friendly wines and those that flatter. At times it gets scientific while talking about trigeminal nerve or the dopamine transmitters, or drops down a couple of gears to explain how pairing is personal. It covers all tastes, whether red wine works with fish, whether tannins love fat and salt, planning food and wine by ear, rockin' with the terpene family, putting oysters with bubbles or 'cabs with slabs', and the importance of temperature. There are also case studies from southwestern France, the Loire valley, Piedmont and suggestions on pairing wine with southern Italian starters or southern French desserts or Spanish tapas or Greek mezes. There's even a section on what goes well with American hotdogs and burgers, and that's only touching on a fraction of what's on offer. Overall, this may be the only book on pairing you'll ever need. It's well written, all-encompassing and informative. The only problem is the awful boring presentation.
Knackered Mothers Wine Club
There are many ways to wine education. This, for want of better nomenclature, is arguably the 'chick-lit route' and I don't say that with any patronising smugness. In fact, the Knackered Mothers Wine Club title – taken from the blog of the same name – is probably a bit misleading. It's misleading as the writing here is fresh, never too serious and as entertaining as any Saturday morning magazine opener where often the cares of the world are distilled down to a few paragraphs on how some women feel, having successfully got the children through the week - from feeding them, getting them to school and back again and amusing them in-between. And while McGinn tries to push the 'knackered mother' button whenever she can, often the best parts are the simplicity with which she gets her head around the complexity of teaching others what's happened or is happening from the moment the vines are tended to when one curls up on a sofa at the end of the week with one's favourite tipple and possibly something edible to go with it. Covering everything from what affects the flavour of wine to a run-through of the key grape varieties, this magazine-style approach to wine education is admirable, albeit specifically targeted at women rather than men.